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Business Tools

How to Deal with Crushing Feedback on Your Creative Work

Criticism can sting. Avoid becoming defensive and instead give a measured response to ensure a productive conversation.


Sarah is a web designer who’s been burning the midnight oil to create a site for a new client. It’s a high-profile job for a big brand, with the promise of more to follow, so she sees it as a fantastic opportunity.

It’s been a tough week but when she looks at the finished work she feels it has been worth it – it gives her that tingling feeling she gets when she’s done something special. She can’t wait to show it to the client.

The moment of truth arrives, when the client delivers his verdict:

“Well, I have to say I expected something better than that.”

Sarah is crushed. For a moment, she almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.

“What is it you’re not happy about?”

For the next fifteen minutes she does nothing but ask and listen intently, taking detailed notes and checking that she has understood his concerns.

Eventually, she narrows it down to one specific aspect of the design. When she realizes why he’s disappointed, she breathes a sigh of relief – it’s a relatively trivial point, and easy to change without compromising her design.

“If I can fix this for you, will you be happy to sign the project off?”

“Sure, if you can change that before my presentation tomorrow afternoon.”

She almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.
Chances are you’ve been in Sarah’s shoes: you produce work you’re really proud of, then someone with none of your professional skill, knowledge, or expertise judges it in an instant – often based on vague or subjective criteria. They don’t know much about art but they know what they don’t like.

And as long as they are your client (or your boss) you have to work with them, to help them articulate their response to your work, and find a way to move the project forward.

Which is easier said than done when your work is being judged or dismissed – it’s only natural for the criticism to sting. So here are some tips on dealing with this kind of crushing feedback on your work.

1. Take a deep breath – and focus on getting what you want

Sarah could have got defensive at the client’s first response, but she bit her tongue and took a different approach – because she knew from experience it was her best chance of getting a positive outcome.

Don’t react defensively – or aggressively – no matter how hurt, disappointed, or annoyed you feel. Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your goal.

2. Clarify the feedback

Before you explain, defend or offer to fix your work, it’s essential that you understand exactly what the other person doesnt like about it. This is not easy, given that they may not express their initial reaction very clearly or constructively.

Here are some of the common traits of unhelpful feedback:

  • Vague—they dismiss your work in general terms (‘awful,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘no good’, ‘disappointing’) without specifying what criteria the judgment is based on.
  • No examples—they fail to back up their judgment with specific examples.
  • Exaggerated—sweeping, black-and-white judgments, with no acknowledgment of fine grades of quality, or alternative points of view.
  • Disrespectful—they may be rude or aggressive.

Before you can have any meaningful discussion, you need to clarify what they are talking about. You can do this by asking questions:

  • “What exactly don’t you like?”
  • “Can you give me an example?”
  • “Can you point to the bit you don’t like?”
  • “Is it the font itself or the size of the text that’s the problem?”
  • “Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told?”

At this stage your goal is to understand (and help them to articulate) their criteria for judgment, and how exactly (in their opinion) the work fails to meet these criteria. You are not agreeing with them, just clarifying what they mean.

3. Ask solution-focused questions

The next step is to move the conversation forward to a positive conclusion: either (a) getting the work accepted in its current form or (b) agreeing on what needs changing. Solution-focused questions are powerful tools for doing this.

To ask a solution-focused question, describe a potential solution and ask whether it would be acceptable to the other person. For example, to get a piece of work accepted in its current form, you might ask:

“I know you don’t like the look of it, but if I can show you evidence that your customers prefer it this way, will you sign it off?”

Or to agree what needs changing you could ask:

“So if I change the colors and add the new headline, you’ll be happy?”

Your goal is to leave the room with a clearly agreed upon next step towards a solution. They may still be skeptical or unsure, but at least you know what you need to do to get the work accepted.

Over to You…

How do you deal with crushing feedback on your creative work?

Comments (54)
  • timeoutofmind

    there’s always envisioning them getting chopped into smithereens by an axe-wielding maniac. that helps, too.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh. Whatever you need to do to regain your equanimity. 😉

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    Really helpful – I’m glad to be able to say my clients are usually pretty solid with providing feedback and also trusting me. But everyone, not so much. Usually it can be tied to something small that’s easily fixed.

  • Joel Jenkins

    As a writer, who’s not currently dependent upon writing as my main source of income, I choose only to write for projects that interest me. If the editor likes my story that’s great! If they reject it I still don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time, because I’ve been writing something I enjoyed and I can always use it in a collection of my own–especially if I’ve used one of my established characters as the protagonist. Of course, if a writer is dependent upon the income from making these sales there is a whole different dynamic involved.

  • Fred

    I try to separate myself from the work. If the client doesn’t like what I’ve done, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a good creative. Conversely, just because the clients don’t like the work, that doesn’t mean they’re idiots.

  • jp

    I think it’s OK when client says to fix some minor things. But it can get really frustrating when client says that your work is not good without any clue or argument and you are forced to fix it over and over again.

  • Martin Barber

    i’m a portrait artist and negative feedback is really crushing, what I ask is which of my previous work, made you choose me and then point out I have done the current portrait in exactly the same style, then I show responses from other artists where I have posted the piece of work. that usually shuts them up.
    I still don’t like critiscism tho, it can be very soul destroying..

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ah yes, “choose the right clients” should have been tip no.1. 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    “if a writer is dependent upon the income from making these sales there is a whole different dynamic involved.” – Yes, that’s the dynamic I was thinking of for this piece.

    If you’re creating for art’s sake, or at least not on commission/contract, then you have the option of ignoring the criticism completely…

  • Mark McGuinness

    “I try to separate myself from the work. If the client doesn’t like what I’ve done, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a good creative.”

    Very wise. Easier said than done, but you’ve hit a very important nail on the head.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I’m not sure what field you’re working in, but one thing that can help here is to set up a series of ‘gates’ where the client has to approve one stage (and commit to their choice) before you move onto the next one.

    E.g. If you are working on a website or magazine design, the first step might be to sign off the basic layout. Once that is approved, you move onto the colours… then the fonts… and so on.

    It’s written clearly into the contract that if the client changes their mind once the ‘gate’ has closed, they have to pay more for you to go back and change it.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “which of my previous work, made you choose me” – that’s a great question! It should remind them of why they like your work, and (hopefully) get them in a better frame of mind. It also gives you both a clear point of reference, which (again hopefully) should make it easier to reach agreement.

  • Luke Jones

    I tend to cry, run home, take a bath and suck on a flannel for a bit.

    Edit: the last two are done simultaneously.

  • Harold K.

    Worst article. Clearly written by someone who has no integrity or experience doing design.

  • JD

    What exactly don’t you like? Can you give me an example? Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told? – Case and point.

  • Aaron Morton

    I think the nature of creativity is very personal to an individual. You are creating something that bubbled up in your mind initially and then made the decision to invest time and caffeine in order to make it a reality.

    When the outside world criticise it, it is very easy to make a defence of it. As all behaviour is state dependent I think it is very important initially to know how to handle your emotions so you don’t fire off that ‘FU, what do you know’ email or the meeting descends into battle rather than a discussion.

    When I receive feedback that would be deemed as crushing I initially smile (trained as a coping mechanism when working in customer relations and having people scream at me on the phone), with that bit of serotonin released I then become aware of how the feedback is affecting me and look to monitor my response.

    Hey, we’re all human the post commentary when Im on my own can be a little different and more colourful in language but it can be a resource for better work!

    Take care

    Aaron

  • Mark McGuinness

    “What exactly don’t you like? Can you give me an example? Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told?”

    Thank you. You took the words out of my mouth. 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ah, the old flannel never fails. And thanks for the clarification!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Good tip re the smile. I guess getting feedback on creative work must feel relatively painless having done customer service!

  • Aaron Morton

    It can be yes Mark, although some of my responses when doing customer service were pretty creative & they were more than happy to give me their disgruntled feedback!
    Aaron

  • Daniel Lidén

    Another strategy is to not invest too much in a design before you know what the client wants. Makes econmic sense too.

  • kennettkwok

    Send in project drafts early to get all the details out. If you’re ready to send in your draft, you’ve sent it in too late for review, thus potentially wasting your time

  • Ian Hamblin

    I tend to see myself and the client as a team, rather than me and them. That way if there is a problem with the work, it’s less of a you vs me thing. I also keep in mind that most clients are sometimes not naturally good at articulating their thoughts. So it might not be that your work is of a “poor standard”, but that it is not hitting the nail on the head when it comes to their vision.

    Lastly if a client was particularly aggressive or rude when it came to giving feedback. I would not work with them again. End of story.

  • Aaron Morton

    yep, saves a lot of time inferring what you think the client wants

  • Aaron Morton

    definitely, Im always interested in the way 12 year olds are cranking out apps these days, because they are doing it for fun. There is no emotional attachment to the outcome. This changes when you rely on it for a source of income. Its great when you are getting started to not have it as a source of income, just like if you begin playing the stock market; don’t use money that would ruin you if you lost it.

    Aaron

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